Unicorn: Warriors Eternal Is Genndy Tartakovsky’s Weirdest Cartoon Yet

TV Reviews Unicorn: Warriors Eternal
Unicorn: Warriors Eternal Is Genndy Tartakovsky’s Weirdest Cartoon Yet

Genndy Tartakovsky’s past cartoon hits have excelled at the art of simplicity, with the sort of easily understood high-concept pitches that allow for infinite creative variation. The premises of Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack are explained right in their theme songs. Such explain-the-plot openings had mostly disappeared from TV by the time Sym-Bionic Titan premiered, but its “John Hughes meets Voltron” elevator pitch was easy enough to pick up on. And Primal is so direct in its visual storytelling it doesn’t even need words to explain what’s going on.

Unicorn: Warriors Eternal, Tartakovsky’s newest series, is not like that. After one episode, you’ll probably have more questions about what’s happening than answers. Two episodes in, you’ll have a better sense of who the heroes are, but still not really be sure why they’re in the situation they’re in or what the great evil they’ve been summoned to fight actually is. I’ve screened five episodes of the 10-episode season, and only after Episode 5 have I finally reached a point where I can basically figure out what the main conflict is actually all about.This unusually convoluted nature might be why Tartakovsky has struggled to get Unicorn made for over 20 years, and possibly why it was moved to Adult Swim despite having been developed for Cartoon Network (and is perfectly PG and family-friendly). It probably wouldn’t be made at all were it not the brainchild of arguably the best director in American television animation. But being a Tartakovsky show counts for a lot, and even at its most bewildering, Unicorn is highly entertaining, with the potential to improve as the story comes into focus.

My best attempt at a spoiler-free summary: the pilot starts in ancient Egypt, where three warriors—elf swordsman Eldred (Jacob Dudman), astral-projecting mystic Seng (Alain Uy), and sorceress Melinda (Grey DeLisle)—are fighting some evil glowy dragon thing. After a battle that leaves Melinda injured, suddenly Merlin of Arthurian legend (Jeremy Crutchley) and a steampunk robot from the future named Copernicus appear through a portal and announce to these three warriors that their spirits will have to return throughout time to fight this mysterious evil. A unicorn briefly showing up to deliver “the blessing of the magic realm” is the only explanation for the show’s title (sorry to the Bronies and Pegasisters hoping for more magical horse action). A montage reminiscent of Samurai Jack’s training around the world shows Copernicus awakening the warriors’ reincarnations throughout history.

The main story takes place in England in 1890, where the latest reincarnation of Melinda, a young Betty Boop-looking woman named Emma (Hazel Doupe), is awakened to her powers and past life on her wedding day to her doting would-be husband Winston (George Webster). This awakening does not go smoothly, and Emma/Melinda’s resulting identity crisis is both a reasonable justification for the general sense of confusion and the one clear emotional hook to make viewers care enough about the characters to delve into the mysteries.

The new incarnations of Eldred and Seng are awakened in Episode 2. The new Eldred (Tom Milligan) seems to be closest in personality to his past self, filled with an angry sense of purpose and still in love with Melinda, which makes for some conflict with Winston. The new Seng (Demari Hunte), meanwhile, is just a kid who’s so blissed out by his new cosmic perception he can barely make heads or tails of regular reality anymore.

Together, this super-team will fight zombie mammoths, living Greek statues, and basically Cthulhu. The mastermind behind these bizarre attacks seems to be some sort of anthropomorphic fox lady (also Grey DeLisle), but I can guarantee you there’s more story going on there. While leaving the villain’s goal so mysterious for so long does hurt the sense of clear stakes, the fifth episode in particular gives me hope that the answers to my questions will satisfyingly tie into the already compelling internal conflicts of the main character.

All narrative questions aside, Unicorn: Warriors Eternal is amazing to look at. Tartakovsky always varies his style between projects, and this time around the aesthetic is drawn primarily from the work of the Fleischer brothers, with elements of such varied influences as Asterix, Astro Boy, and Ren and Stimpy also visible. Those who’ve seen the leaks from Tartakovsky’s sadly canceled Popeye movie know how great this creative team is at capturing the physical humor and dream logic of classic Fleischer cartoons, and the style fits the anything-goes nature of Unicorn’s anachronistic action-packed world. The fights are thrilling and the gags are funny.

In a recent interview with Paste, Tartakovsky has said his goal with Unicorn: Warriors Eternal isn’t simply to make a fun action-comedy, but to use a cartoony style to make viewers emotional in the same way Disney’s Snow White did. If I was reviewing this show based on just the first four episodes, I’d declare it a success entertainment-wise and a disappointment emotion-wise. After Episode 5, though, I’ll say this: I haven’t cried yet, but I fully suspect I might. We’ll see how the second half of the season goes, but Unicorn: Warriors Eternal could very well become something great.

Unicorn Warriors Eternal premieres on May 4 at midnight on Adult Swim, with new episodes airing weekly. Episodes stream the next day on HBO Max.

Reuben Baron is the author of the webcomic Con Job: Revenge of the SamurAlchemist and a contributor to Looper and Anime News Network, among other websites. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndalusianDoge.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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